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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Super Realism

Stylized Minimalism, 2009, C.D. Willis
If you thought the most impersonal type of art ever created would probably be what has come to be called Minimalism, you might be wrong. Minimalism was an outgrowth of some of the color field paintings which themselves were an outgrowth of the Abstract Expressionist era. Now if you ask, what could be more impersonal than a canvas painted with muted shades and tints of lavenders and blues, the answer might surprise you. Think of a painting of a street in a moderate-size city, a sunny day, squeaky clean storefront windows reflecting a mirror image of the city street, painted so realistically one would have to study it for a minute or so to ascertain that it was in fact a painting, not a 3 by 6 foot blown-up photograph. On this street, a few cars, perhaps a truck, but no other evidence of human habitation, not even a scrap of paper--urban minimalism.

Prescriptions Filled, 1983, Richard Estes
The work I'm describing is that of Richard Estes, Prescriptions Filled, painted in 1983. At first glance its stark, Super-Realism would seem far-removed from the Minimalism that preceded it in the 1970s. But taking a closer look, one notices a near-perfect symmetry. A single, slender light post juts up from the deserted, cold gray sidewalk into the warm, blue sky, dividing the canvas nearly in half.  On the left the city, a warm, yet stark, uninhabited, urban landscape. On the right, the same landscape, reflected in the cold, sleek, pristine, blue-gray windows of an urban drugstore. The title of the painting is derived from a small sign in the window. The effect is eerie. One point perspective runs rampant. If fact, the painting appears to be more about linear design than its all-too-familiar subject matter. It's only this familiarity with the subjective content of the painting that makes it difficult for us to see this.

That's exactly what Minimalism was all about, stark, flat, linear design, without representational subject matter, certainly, but no less impersonal. The subtleties of scale, shape, mass, line and color are what makes a Minimalist painting fascinating--for about two minutes (three tops). Yet, using these same elements, Estes' paintings fascinate us for perhaps hours. We are so enraptured by his Super- Realism (sometimes called Photo-Realism) that it may be several minutes before we even notice the absence of human habitation. (Most, but not all of Estes' work is devoid of human presence.) We get so involved with "how-could-he-possible-do-that?" painting skills of the artist that the painting begins to seem more real than the scene itself. Yet strangely, when you take the time to think about it, a Minimalist painting is more real. It exists. It is not an illusion of something non-existent.

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